DNA: The Key to Human Suffering?

In 2004 I read DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE  by  James Watson.  This is the final blog of a series of three offering some of my comments on the book.  The first blog was DNA: A Scripture and Keeper of the Truth? The second blog was DNA: Science and Ideology

In this book one encounters a scientific challenge to prolife thinking.    Secular humanistic compassion and love is embraced by the author.     Though Watson is comfortable with allowing anyone to make reproductive decisions based upon their religious beliefs, he does feel that religious constraint is imposed on the free choice of secularists who are forced to follow religious morality.   For Watson, science holds a key to relieve the untold suffering in this world.  Genetically modified crops can greatly increase the yield on farms and feed the world’s masses.   Genetically modified crops do and will reduce dependency on insecticides and herbicides, thus reducing pollution of land and water, again benefitting everyone on earth.  Such modifications by reducing our use of chemicals will improve our health, so he argues.     He believes this is being prolife.  For him, suffering is the great evil which love must overcome.  Suffering, so he believes, can be relieved by human ingenuity including the genetic modification of food and the through genetic therapies for humans.   He points out several terribly painful and wasting diseases which we now know are genetically determined and can be avoided by the genetic screening of women.  Why he asks, wouldn’t we want to spare fellow humans from short lives which are full of pain?     He is OK with using abortion to attain these ends, but he also believes genetic testing of couples can help them decide whether or not to conceive children in the first place based upon their being genetic carriers of wasting diseases.   Through genetic testing of couples, they can decide not to pass along their genetic defects to their offspring.    Watson appears to take a very utilitarian view of human life.  The death of infants and children from wasting genetic diseases is not acceptable to him morally when we have the knowledge to prevent their conception or coming to term.  His argument is that we take utmost care to help the sick and dying be comfortable and painless and we put our effort and energy into conquering diseases, so why not use the obvious science of genetics to accomplish these same goals?   The book offers insight into the mind of a man who doesn’t think religious arguments ought to be forced on the rest of humanity.    Whereas Christians would argue that human life, even if shortened and diseased, is still valuable and sacred, Watson sees life as being meaningful when it is productive.  An infant or child’s brief life in constant pain is of questionable value to him.  Why would we wish such an existence on anyone if we have the technology to stop it?     Would it not, he asks, be more humane and comforting to avoid bringing such life into existence in the first place?     If we as religious people in love and compassion see our duty to help prevent others from suffering or understand our role to relieve the suffering of others (even by anaesthetizing them through their entire existence), why, he asks,  do we argue for bringing into existence lives which we know absolutely will be nothing but sorrow and pain for their shortened existence?     How, he asks, is that more moral or compassionate or loving than using our genetic knowledge to avoid bringing them into being?   These I think are the arguments that pro-lifers will face during the next decade.

Watson stays true to his description of being a secularist and a scientist even as he considers the dark side of humanity.   He describes this negative side of humans as being “selfish” which he defines as “that aspect of our nature that evolution has hardwired to promote our own survival.”   An interesting definition of what we would call sin.  In evolutionary terms, selfishness and sinfulness are for the survival of the species!   But Watson is not convinced that humanity’s hubris really is the most powerful force in our lives.  He does state that he sees humans as being first social beings with compassion for others as a natural choice and force in our lives.  He believes it is this compassion which makes us uniquely human.   It is our ability to love and our need for love which will save us from our darker side of evolved selfishness.    And he sees this compassion as manifesting itself best when humans decide to prevent the suffering of others through knowledge such as DNA has revealed to us.  

 Watson offers to us a worldview which is radically different from one based in the assumptions of Christianity.  His book is important for Christians because it does offer us a basis to try to understand the ideas and ideals with which we are competing for the hearts, minds and souls of the people of the world.  Watson’s universe is one in which people do not need salvation or some intervention from God to save them.   Humans in his way of thinking are wired for compassion and need only tap into their humanism to overcome the world’s problems.  In this Watson shows himself to be a true son of the Enlightenment.  He sees a world in which ignorance not sin or evil is the true problem plaguing humanity.  For me there is a harsh limit to his idealism; namely, that both Nazis and Stalinists believed re-education was the tool to correct what they thought was wrong with humanity.   

Christians need to find the way to convey the truth of the Gospel to the secular scientist in order to fulfill the great commission which Christ has set forth for us.  We cannot convert people to the Gospel if we cannot find a way to compellingly convey the Gospel to them.   This also entails dealing with the issues of what ails humanity, and what role evil plays in the problems of the world.  The witness of the Scriptures is that God loves humanity despite its faults and weaknesses.  Watson offers a vision in which the weakest humans would be denied life in order to deny them suffering.  He somehow imagines genetic improvements in food production will alleviate the problems plaguing humankind, but this will not change the heart in each human nor the heart’s tendency toward evil.  But perhaps Watson feels genetics can change the human heart as well and shape humanity in the image and imagination of the scientist.

DNA: Science and Ideology

In 2004 I read DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE  by  James Watson, and wrote comments on the book which I never published.  This is my second in a series of three blogs on the book.  The first blog was DNA: A Scripture and Keeper of the Truth?

 For those who are interested in the connection between life and physical creation, this book does offer a scientific criticism of the need for any kind of vitalism – some force divine or natural which gives life to inanimate material.   By showing the basis of biological life to be in proteins and protein manufacturing and transfer, Watson aims at demonstrating that even without any sense of divine intervention, biological processes toward the continuation of a species does go on at the molecular level.   This is taking the Creationism vs. Evolution debate to a new level – a microbiological level.     DNA – basically chemicals and proteins – works to preserve life from one cell to the next and from one generation to the next.   At this level it is possible to believe that inanimate proteins are somehow carrying on the work of life itself.   It is not so totally impossible to see a physical universe capable at the level of proteins to begin organizing chains of proteins and then copying those chains and passing them along to ever complex forms until cells emerge.  They are doing that right now in our bodies, millions of times every day.     At this level we also see the mechanism of evolution at work, and can see why scientists believe this does explain the origins and history of life itself.  In some sense genetic material is in fact a historical record of life on earth, recorded, copied and passed down through the millennium complete with scribal errors which brought into being new combinations of DNA resulting over time in new species.  As Watson describes it, “Life, we now know, is nothing but a vast array of coordinated chemical reactions.”    Of course this is a reductionism and assumes that life can be completely understood on the level of proteins.     But we know life exists and functions on other levels besides the molecular level.  Nevertheless, as Christians molecular biology, microbiology and genetics do offer to us a new way of seeing the universe, and the plan of God at work.  While humans may disobey the will of God, at the molecular level, creation is working according to the will and plan of God – the very laws which God wrote into the natural universe.    And because we know this level exists, we can hardly pretend otherwise even if it is a challenge to our belief in creation.     

In the chapter “Who We Are” Watson also points out that the great scientific opposition to evolution and Mendelian genetics was Comrade Trofim Lysenko who inspired Stalin to follow disastrous agricultural methods which while ideologically  acceptable to the atheistic communists, totally ignored the discoveries of genetic science.  The results were the massive starvation of millions of Soviet citizens while US agriculture following genetic science became the breadbasket of the world.   This is a historical truth which creation scientists might be wise to note.    In Watson’s own words: “… ideology- of any kind- and science are at best inappropriate bedfellows.  Science may indeed uncover unpleasant truths, but the critical thing is that they are truths.  Any effort, whether wicked or well-meaning, to conceal truth or impede its disclosure is destructive.”     Here Watson would agree with the search which Orthodox Christianity also would claim for religion: truth.   For Watson however, there is no transcendent truth, no truth outside the realm of the physical world, no meaning to be bestowed upon us all at the end of the world.   For him, when the universe might end by reaching entropy or in another big band, meaning will cease to exist as well.    There is no great struggle for the good against evil for him.   There is no sense that something greater than this world (or this DNA!) exists beyond or outside of the chemical universe.   Human intelligence, emotions or creativity notwithstanding, for Watson the world of DNA is awesome and awe inspiring, but mystery is limited only to that which we have yet to discover or that which is beyond our immediate technology.  A true sense of mystery – even one where mystery is simply a logic beyond human logic or a logic based in some plan unfolding in the universe whose purpose or goal is beyond our understanding – these Watson the secularist is not interested in.   Watson reveals to us the mysteries of DNA, but then seems to say beyond DNA mystery doesn’t exist or isn’t worth knowing.   Seeing the awesome mystery of life, does not awaken in him an aspiration to find ever greater mysteries in the universe, and so he doesn’t seek God but seems to come to a dead end in the DNA.

Next:  DNA: The Key to Human Suffering?

DNA: A Scripture and Keeper of the Truth?

In 2004 I read DNA: THE SECRET OF LIFE  by  James Watson, and wrote comments on the book which I never published for lack of a venue.  In this series of three blogs, I am finally publishing my comments on the book.

James Watson along with Francis Crick are credited with revealing the very nature of  DNA – the double helix which is for science as the title suggests the secret of life.   Crick and Watson received the Nobel Prize for their work to crack the code of proteins which constitutes how life is passed from one cell to the next, and life from one generation to the next.    Watson’s book offers insight into how the various discoveries of an array of scientists brought the pieces of the puzzle together to open to our eyes to how life works on the level of molecular biology.   The book is a fascinating history of modern science in the field of genetics.  It also brings a great deal of science to the level of knowledgeable readers.  One can gain great insight into the possibilities which the science of genetics is opening to our world.   One also realizes clearly that for some what has been opened by molecular biologists and geneticists is a potential economic bonanza, the likes of which the world has not previously known.  For others, the unveiling of DNA will bring into reality the worst fears of science fiction.    Watson does not avoid the controversies which this science has caused or the alarms which have been set off among some people about the dangers which it represents.  He is in the end confident that this new science will prove its worth and will silence its critics. 

Not being a scientist nor an entrepreneur nor a venture capitalist, I can’t really comment on these aspects of the book.   I was however intrigued by some of the theological implications of the book, though Watson would never claim it to be a theological book at all.  Watson admits he is purely a secularist and a scientist.   But that makes the book interesting for believers.  I found it to be a readable book even when the scientific details were beyond my understanding and even when the history complete with names of all those involved is beyond my interest.   It is a book which really does assume and advocate a purely secular scientific understanding of life.   Watson is quite confident that the potential of this science, though fraught with some risk, ultimately is for the greater good.   He dismisses the concerns of religious folk, ethicists, politicians, environmentalists, organic farmers and American lovers of racial and gender equality with equal aplomb.   Whatever questions or fears have been raised about genetically altering plants, foods, animals or humans, he dismisses as not founded on good science.   He wholly trusts in the goodness of science and scientists because he does believe in the end humans are basically benign if not outright benevolent.  But his belief that scientists will always be moved by humanitarian ideals is certainly one of blind faith, for scientists have proven themselves willing to do things for economic, nationalistic, egoistic, and ideological reasons just like every other human.

I would encourage Christian intellectuals to read this book for several reasons, not the least of which is we gain some understanding into the secular scientific mind.   Through this book we can gain insight into the mind of the secular world.   If we are to fulfill our evangelical mission, we have to have some comprehension of those to whom we will proclaim the good news.

Watson does not believe that secularists are immoral.  Rather he feels they simply “feel no need for a moral code written down in an ancient tome.”   He believes in the goodness and compassion of humanity because we are social beings.   Apparently for him goodness emerges naturally from humans because of our social nature.    He openly says love is what is responsible for human survival on this planet (but one has to wonder how he reconciles that with the claim in the same chapter that selfishness is a human adaptation for species survival).  He looks to DNA as being a new form of scripture: “Our DNA, the instruction book of human creation, may well come to rival religious scripture as the keeper of the truth.”  

 He sounds a challenge to believers which is why I think we need to read his text and understand the world to which we are to witness the truth of the Gospel.   DNA apparently does record human history, and thus is another kind of record of what God has been doing in and through humanity from the beginning of creation.

Next:  DNA:  Science and Ideology

See also:  DNA: Another Scripture